My Recovery in Traditional AA
By John B
In the first week of August, 1984, at the age of forty-eight, I crawled back into AA. My first exposure to twelve step recovery had occurred in a fifteen day treatment program the last half of August in 1980 and I had spent the last four years as what I call an alcohol retread. I would pay lip service to AA principles and remain alcohol free for a couple of months, allow self-delusion to lead me to taking the first drink, which would lead to a two, three, or four day binge. Back to AA, then another binge.
This repeated violation of my own value structure generated a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, a level of psychological pain that I could no longer endure. I needed help and AA was the only place I knew to go. As a secular-humanist I knew I was still going to be a square peg in a round hole, but this time around I was committed to making sure the diameter of the hole was wide enough for me to slip into. The intensity of the pain served as a catalyst for the arousal of some embryonic open-mindedness and I began to notice something interesting: a significant number of Bill Wilson’s own statements can be used to validate a non-God approach to twelve step recovery. This required some sifting and sorting and the agnostic, atheist, secular view of recovery never comes close to ascendancy in Wilson’s writings, but it is present and it is detectable.
There are many Wilson quotations to be found in AA literature that illustrate his desire to be inclusive and he acknowledged the influence of the early agnostics that led to the choice of the words, “God as we understood Him.” (Language of the Heart, p. 201). For the sake of brevity this essay will address only two of his ideas which can be used to support our non-God position. Then I’ll try to show how the power of reason, that attribute we non-believers are so proud of, can be used to extract God from three of the common AA “prayer tools” and see if anything useful remains.
First, consider the third tradition… “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to quit drinking.” According to this anyone can become a member of AA without belief in any deity, without reliance on any source of power outside themselves, and with no requirement to adhere to any code of conduct. I nominate myself, and I’m in. What’s next?
Next, the God concept creeps into the picture when Wilson states what the Big Book is all about: “Its main object is to enable you to find a power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.” (Big Book, p. 45). He concedes the search for this power may be difficult but, “Much to our relief we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God.” (Big Book, p. 46). I knew I was not willing to accept any conception of God! Would that disqualify me from membership? Wilson says no. “You can if you wish make AA itself your higher power.” (12 and 12, p. 27). Whether he intended to or not, Wilson had conflated the term higher power with the word God and accorded me the option to designate the fellowship as my higher power. I call it the agnostic loophole, and now I had a humanist foundation upon which to build my recovery – one day at a time. Wilson went on to say he knew of many alcoholics who began their recovery journey using the fellowship as their higher power… “And most of them began to talk of God.” (12 and 12, p. 28) What was noteworthy to me is that he did not say “all of them”.
Now, about those prayers.
First, the Serenity Prayer. Even if a person accepts the literal meaning of the first three words of the prayer, there is a clear implication one must accept the call for continual application of rationality and personal will. Acceptance is a rational choice that requires constant differentiation between what I can or cannot control. Having the courage to change will inevitably involve the frequent use of personal will. Ideally then, wisdom will evolve and endow me with a clearer perception of truth, better judgement, and the elevation of my thinking to a higher level of sophistication. As a free thinker I choose to mentally delete the word God, replace it with the word “Please”, and use the serenity prayer as a set of instructions to begin meditation; sometimes to get better acquainted with me and sometimes to search for the answer to the current conundrum.
Two other prayers are frequently recommended to newcomers. My sponsor suggested I check out the third step prayer (Big Book, p. 63), and the seventh step prayer (Big Book, p. 76). The gist of the third step prayer is contained in this often quoted sentence, “Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.” Using different words, the seventh step prayer makes the same basic requests when it asks God to remove, “every single defect of character that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.”
From a rational secular viewpoint the wording of these prayers is no more than a reminder to me of the commitments I had made to myself, my sponsors, family, friends, and all others who were supportive of me in my quest for sobriety. Words like this are useful reminders, but I had no need to seek divine intervention, the human community was doing a fine job. My life was now being guided by a faith based on fact.
Is reading the Big Book – including these prayers – an inevitable part of recovery, even for we non-theists?
In tune with other viewpoints I have read on this site, I also agree that the Big Book should be allowed to drift into obscurity, or maybe classified as “top secret” and locked into a vault at GSO. I see no possibility that it will be officially demoted because of the grip it has on AA fundamentalists, its role in AA ritual, and its cash value to GSO.
None of the above essay is offered as essential to recovery. It just represents the struggle of how one alcoholic attempted to acclimate himself to the only available support mechanism available to him in the summer of 1984 in Northern Indiana. Sadly, the same conditions still exist where we now live in North Georgia (not Russia). The most advertised alternatives here are strictly Christian based. I do my best at the meeting I regularly attend to share my experience and strength to emphasize that contrary to what it says on p. 60 of the Big book, my alcoholism was in fact “relieved” by human power.
Eighty-two year old sober alcoholic with 34 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 52 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.